Medicine Bag Poems: Maya Angelou – Phenomenal Woman

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Dr Maya Angelou

Poetry can tell us what human beings are.
It can tell us why we stumble and fall and how,
miraculously, we can stand up.
Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou, poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, civil-rights activist, producer and director, passed away last Wednesday, 28th May, aged 86. Her life and teachings inspired millions around the world.

I never met Dr. Angelou. I never heard her speak live at an event. I have not (yet) read her bestselling memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings telling of her childhood of suffering and abuse in the racist deep south of the U.S.A.

But she changed my life profoundly through her words.

Here is that story.

It was a wet and sticky day in early August. I stepped into the small, crowded interview room. I was smartly dressed, my hair smoothed, my presentation prepared.

What the five people facing me did not know was that I carried with me an invisible ally. A secret weapon: weightless, odourless, tasteless, but powerful beyond measure.

The words of a poem.

For years I had longed to step into my leadership potential, but held myself back. Even though I had a successful management career, I was usually second or third in command, not the leader. I felt the frustration of playing small. But I was afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, that others would judge me if I failed to make the grade. I began to see that I had a host of unconscious strategies for staying small, invisible, safe.

I decided it was time to change.

I already knew the power of working deeply with a companion poem – the right poem at the right time – to support myself in living more fully, more wholeheartedly. So I asked internally what poem I needed to work with. My intuition spoke clearly, but I didn’t like the answer I got. Resistance kicked in.

‘That’s a great poem,’ I thought ‘but for other people, not for me.’

A quiet, insistent voice inside knew better. For weeks I kept asking and asking, hoping that somehow I would get a different answer, but it always came back the same. ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou.

I felt like the poem had chosen me, rather than I it.

It’s an anthem poem for female empowerment. A physical, sensual, living-out-loud-and-proud poem. I thought of myself as strong but reserved, more cerebral than physical. Yet something inside was calling me to step up and step out. It was time. I was terrified, but I let the poem guide me.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Click here to listen to the poem

The poem stretched me into a new part of myself. At first it felt alien to me, like a coat that did not fit. I tried it on anyway, sensing how I would need to expand into its powerful expression.

It stretched me into my feminine power, but most of all it stretched me into my leadership. It’s a pioneer poem – a woman taking up space, being in control of her body, her life, being unapologetically visible, powerful and joyful. Some of the lines – ‘Now you understand / Just why my head’s not bowed’ – I could feel physically affecting my posture where I hunched my shoulders or made myself small.

Phenomenal Woman - Wales July 2013

I worked with the poem in a group workshop with Kim Rosen. I had a backup team of phenomenal women and the support of the whole group cheering me on. It stretched me to claim that powerful expression, but I had a blast doing it.

When it came to the interview I remembered the poem and carried that confidence with me, that visceral knowing of how to claim my power and take up space. They offered me the Chief Executive position, my first leadership role.

If you want to learn more about how to work with a poem, contact me to get a copy of my free guide Using Poetry for Wholehearted Living.

Medicine Bag Poems: Esther Morgan’s ‘Grace’

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Grace

You’ve been living for this for weeks
without knowing it:

the moment the house empties like a city in August
so completely
it forgets you exist.

Light withdraws slowly
is almost gone before you notice.

In the stillness, everything becomes itself:
the circle of white plates on the kitchen table
the serious chairs that attend them

even the roses on the papered walls
seem to open a little wider.

It looks simple: the glass vase holding
whatever is offered –
cut flowers, or the thought of them –

simple, though not easy
this waiting without hunger in the near dark
for what you may be about to receive.

Esther Morgan, from Grace, Bloodaxe Books, 2011

I first heard Esther Morgan’s luminous poetry a couple of years ago when I attended the T.S. Eliot Prize readings at London’s Southbank Centre. Her poems glow with the intensity of a Vermeer painting and share many of the same preoccupations: the quality of light, texture, domestic scenes infused with meaning, moments captured and unfolded, petal by tender petal.

‘Grace’ is the title poem from the collection shortlisted for the prize. Although the poem, like the scene it describes, ‘looks simple’ it achieves a harmony of form and meaning that is far from easy to achieve. Morgan engages the reader from the outset by addressing us directly, arousing our curiosity and creating a sense of heightened anticipation. What is it that we’ve been living for without knowing it?

She expertly draws us into her world, recreating a sense of stillness and hush through use of long vowels and varying sentence length. The details attended to – plates, table, chairs, wallpaper, vase – are, like a still life, both concrete and representational. We are invited to slow down, to pay attention to the simplicity and beauty of the things that surround us, to ‘open a little wider’ to what the world has to offer.

The objects described are functional, waiting to be used, to be occupied. They are all around us, an everyday reminder of what it is to wait ‘without hunger’. In a world where hunger for more is as familiar as the air we breathe – more time, more money, more goods, more status, more peace – such a reminder opens up new possibilities.

What happens when we allow our mental and emotional hunger to subside for a moment, empty ourselves of busyness, become a container for whatever is offered? The answer, Morgan suggests, is that ‘In the stillness, everything becomes itself’.

How do we get there? It may be ‘simple, though not easy’. I know one of the answers, for me, is to spend time regularly in the company of poems like these.

Medicine Bag Poems: Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything is Going to be All Right’

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Although familiar with some of Derek Mahon’s work, this poem was a fairly recent discovery for me. I can’t remember if I first came across it on Anthony Wilson’s excellent Lifesaving Poems blog, or if I came across his blog while searching for the full text of the poem. Either way it is a poem that brings me alive through its moving mixture of heartbreak and hope.

Although famous for his formality as a poet, Mahon’s initial question is written in an almost conversational style. The casual tone is quickly arrested by the matter-of-fact but devastating assertion ‘there will be dying’. From here the poem settles into a more regular rhythm and increasingly formal rhyme scheme, as if attempting to restore order in the wake of that realisation.

Former U.S. poet laureate, Robert Hass, said ‘Poems must move in two directions at once: enchantment and disenchantment, life and death, knowing and having no idea.’* This poem stitches its polarities of life and death together through its anatomy of ‘i’ sounds, ‘I’, ‘high tide’, ‘dying’, ‘dying’, ‘rises’, ‘spite’, ‘bright’, ‘lie’, ‘riot’, ‘sunlight’, ‘flying’, ‘right’, weaving a subtle tapestry of meaning and music.

There is a sense of waking from a haunted night into a hopeful dawn. The ‘watchful heart’ does not forget the dark dreams but is wise enough to accept the nature of change; clouds move, tides come and go, the sun rises and sets. It’s a matter of perspective. Everything looks better in sunlight and, given enough distance, cities look beautiful and even death can be accepted as part of life.

Although beginning and ending on this note of hope, Mahon communicates that this is a choice rather than a felt certainty. The poem remains as complicated as life itself through repeating its assurance of death and its oh-so-human ‘in spite of everything’. But, most of all, in the foundation of doubt laid by that easily overlooked, small second word, ‘should’.

 

Everything is Going to be All Right

 

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

 

Derek Mahon, New Collected Poems, 2011.

*Robert Hass, quoted in Kim Rosen, Saved by a Poem, 2009.

Medicine Bag Poems: Seamus Heaney’s ‘Postscript’

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When I first decided, a few years ago, to learn poems off by heart, this was the first one on my list. It still thrills me each time I dredge it from my inner archives and press play. Why do I love it so much and what is its medicine for me?

It’s partly for reasons of personal recognition. I love hearing the Irish vernacular (I’ve lived in the UK for fourteen years and miss it). Having spent many summers on the west coast of Ireland I’m familiar with the dramatic qualities of the light there that this poem captures with such pinpoint accuracy. And like most nature lovers, I know the experience of stumbling onto scenes of great beauty that ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open.’ As in the classic song ‘Killing Me Softly…’, Heaney is ‘singing my life with his words’.

But Heaney is a master poet, avoiding the cliché of sounding like a tourist advert through surprising images and subtle use of sound. The long ‘i’ of ‘time’, ‘light’, ‘side’, ‘wild’, ‘lightning’ and ‘white’ build and echo in ‘sideways’. He uses the short ‘i’ in ‘wind’ and ‘glitter’ to emphasize the ‘lit’ that highlights the central image of ‘the earthed lightning of a flock of swans’. The ‘o’s of the final punchline ‘blow it open’ are set up by the preceding intonation of ‘October’, ‘ocean’, ‘stones’, ‘grown’, ‘known’.

Like all great poems, space is left for the ineffable. ‘Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly’ is an acknowledgement of the fleeting nature of such moments, as well as a humbling admission for a writer. We may be ‘A hurry through which known and strange things pass’ but on this occasion Heaney was gifted with the grace to catch that moment and preserve it for the rest of us. Like W.B. Yeats, who carries his memories of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ I carry this poem so ‘While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’

 

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,

Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,

Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads

Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level (1996)